Wednesday Reading List: Tech Titans Wield Influence, Rules for Effective Teaching, and Disambiguating Racism

Natasha Singer has a long reported piece in The New York Times about the influence of the tech sector on American public schools:

Captains of American industry have long used their private wealth to remake public education, with lasting and not always beneficial results. What is different today is that some technology giants have begun pitching their ideas directly to students, teachers and parents — using social media to rally people behind their ideas. Some companies also cultivate teachers to spread the word about their products. Such strategies help companies and philanthropists alike influence public schools far more quickly than in the past, by creating legions of supporters who can sway legislators and education officials.

I'm glad Singer differentiates this era of "American Tycoon Drives Reform" from its earlier iterations, otherwise you could have changed the proper nouns in this piece and published it in each of the last 35 years. The direct cultivation of parents and students as both customers themselves, and as sources of demand pressure upon school systems, is unique to this period in time. I've had dozens of conversations with technology entrepreneurs, and this strategy of reaching out to children with free products to build demand for both reform and technology is 100% intentional. Some people will interpret this strategy as morally questionable, while other folks view the approach as an indispensable mechanism for accelerating improvement in intransigent systems. Either way, the topic deserves public debate. I could talk about this piece forever, so do me a favor and just ... 

In other news, Daarel Burnette II of Education Week examines how the concept of effective teaching has shifted with new federal rules:

ESSA requires states to provide a single definition of "ineffective teachers" in the plans they submit to the federal government and then describe how they will ensure that poor and minority students aren't being taught by a disproportionate number of them. This shift in policy has reignited battles over who should stand in front of America's classrooms, whether state or local leaders should make those decisions, and what information about teachers' performance should be reported. Civil rights advocates and teacher accountability hawks have expressed deep frustration with how some states ignored this portion of the law in the 17 plans submitted so far. They are pushing the Education Department to get tough as those plans undergo peer review before the education secretary rules on them.

And you thought we were done discussing teacher accountability as a state- and federal-level policy issue?

Fact: low-income children are disproportionately harmed by having an ineffective teacher.

Fact: a disproportionate number of our least effective teachers end up in schools serving high concentrations of poor children.

I hope that today's policymakers can leverage the laws at their disposal to protect the educational interests of vulnerable children ... without designing overly-byzantine systems that both piss everyone off, and are impossible to execute. Good luck!

Finally today, I want to juxtapose two stories from this week that illustrate the interconnectedness of "personal racism" and "institutional racism." First, here's Hannah Natanson of The Harvard Crimson:

Harvard College rescinded admissions offers to at least ten prospective members of the Class of 2021 after the students traded sexually explicit memes and messages that sometimes targeted minority groups in a private Facebook group chat. A handful of admitted students formed the messaging group—titled, at one point, “Harvard memes for horny bourgeois teens”—on Facebook in late December, according to two incoming freshmen. In the group, students sent each other memes and other images mocking sexual assault, the Holocaust, and the deaths of children, according to screenshots of the chat obtained by The Crimson. Some of the messages joked that abusing children was sexually arousing, while others had punchlines directed at specific ethnic or racial groups.

Whatever you think about the actions of Harvard in this instance, it's pretty clear that the students involved were sharing noxious ideas and images. Does that make the individuals involved "racists" and "sexists" themselves? Frankly, I don't care. It's irrelevant what's "in the hearts" of these students, because their actions encourage prejudicial beliefs, and they're willfully spreading stereotypes that undergird discrimination.

Now, consider this story, from Flint, Michigan, reported by Breanna Edwards of The Root [Note: the excerpt contains both profanity and a racial slur]:

A Flint, Mich., official has tendered his resignation after water activists recorded him using a racial slur and racially charged stereotypes as he pointed blame for the city’s water crisis. Phil Stair, the sales manager of the Genessee County Land Bank, handed in his resignation after being recorded blaming the city’s water crisis on “fucking niggers [who] don’t pay their bills” ... Stair made his comments while attempting to explain to the activists his version of how the water crisis went down, claiming that the city was forced to use the contaminated water from the Flint River after Detroit jacked up prices to account for its own unpaid water bills ... [Genessee County Land Bank] takes over tax-foreclosed properties and carries out demolitions, rehabilitations and sales.

This situation is different, and not because Phil Stair seems any more "personally racist" than the students in the prior example. In this case, the person in question wields considerable power; the Genessee County Land Bank is a government entity that happens to be the largest property owner in Flint. Readers will remember that Flint is still struggling with a manmade water crisis, and as The New York Times has reported, Stair's bank forecloses on properties with unpaid water bills. These foreclosures disproportionately affect Flint's Black residents, who are still being forced to pay the state for poisoned water.

All of which is to say, the personal prejudices of Phil Stair have a direct effect on wealth distribution in Flint, through the power his bank wields over foreclosures, demolitions, and repossessions. That's TEXTBOOK institutional racism:

Power + Prejudice = Racism

I know people who think that we will never eradicate personal racism, and that shaming individuals for expressing prejudiced views is a waste of time. I agree that we may never drive out racially-motivated prejudices from this world, but I'm okay with imposing social penalties on people who perpetuate prejudice. The students at Harvard are quite literally on a fast track to acquiring power and privilege. Some day, many of them will hold institutional roles with exponentially more authority than a middle manager at the Genessee County Land Bank can even imagine.

I don't know if revoking the admissions of these students will have any effect on lessening their prejudices, but it might curtail their short-term access to power. "Personal racism" and "institutional racism" are two different things. But we're kidding ourselves if we think they're not related. Have a good day ...